In the ecclesiastical calendar of the Western Church, January 1 traditionally commemorates the circumcision of Jesus, as narrated in Luke 2:21. This brief notice, which matches that of John the Baptist in Lk 1:59ff (part of a parallelism between John and Jesus that runs through the Infancy narrative), serves two purposes within the text: (a) to narrate the official naming of Jesus (cf. Lk 1:31), and (b) to demonstrate the faithfulness of Joseph and Mary in observing the Old Testament/Jewish Law. Within the narrative, it is connected with the Temple scene of Lk 2:22-38—one of three episodes set in the Temple (the others being Lk 1:5-25 and 2:41-50). There is a clear emphasis on the faithfulness and religious devotion of the main characters—Zechariah and Elizabeth (1:5), Joseph and Mary (2:22-24, 39, 41-42, cf. Matt 1:19), Simeon and Anna (2:25, 37-38), and the child Jesus (2:43-50, 51-52). The Old Testament and Jewish background of these episodes as been noted by many commentators, according to a number recurring motifs: (i) allusions to the Old Testament within the canticles, (ii) the annunciation scenes, (iii) parallels with the birth of Samuel (1 Sam 1:1-2:26), (iv) the Temple setting, (v) the idea of observing/fulfilling the Law, and (vi) an atmosphere of ‘Messianic’ expectation—on this last, cf. especially Lk 2:25, 38, but also 1:16-17, 32-33, 43, 54-55, 69ff, 76ff; 2:11, 30-32. Particularly noteworthy for Lk 2:21-38 are the allusions to various passages from (Deutero-)Isaiah, such as 40:1, 5; 46:13; 49:6, 9; 52:10; 61:2.
Romans 15:8-9 (also Luke 2:21, 29-32)
In the context of Jesus’ circumcision, it is worth exploring the interesting reference of Romans 15:8ff, where it is stated (by Paul) that Jesus “came to be [gegnh=sqai] a servant [dia/konon] of (the) circumcision [peritomh=$, lit. “cutting around”] under the truth of God”. This is another key use of the verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), related to the birth and/or incarnation of Christ, such as we have been studying in recent notes. There is here a close parallel with Gal 4:4, specifically with regard to the birth of Jesus—”God sent forth his Son…”
- “coming to be [geno/menon] out of a woman (i.e. spec. of his human birth)”
- “coming to be [geno/menon] under the Law (i.e. his human life, esp. as a Jew)”
The expression “servant of (the) circumcision” is generally synonymous with “under the Law [u(po\ no/mon]”, though Paul also uses the latter phrase in a deeper theological sense. In coming under the religious and ethical authority of the Old Testament/Jewish Law (the Torah), it was necessary that he should be circumcised. Though circumcision (and comparable practices) are not unique to Israel, being attested as an ancient/traditional rite in cultures around the world, nevertheless it hold a special place for Israelites and Jews as a mark of the covenant with God—i.e. marking them as God’s chosen people—and as an essential sign of religious and cultural identity (cf. Gen 17:10ff; 21:4; 34:15ff; Exod 4:24-26; 12:44, 48; Lev 12:3; Josh 5:2-8, and many subsequent passages [in the NT, see Jn 7:22-23; Acts 7:8, etc]). Circumcision in Old Testament and Jewish tradition could also be symbolic of faithfulness and obedience in the wider ethical or spiritual sense (cf. Deut 10:16; 30:16; Jer 4:4; 9:25, etc).
In the New Testament, “circumcision” and “circumcised” are often used as shorthand terms to refer to (observant) Jews—Acts 10:45; 11:2; Rom 3:30; 4:9, 12; Gal 2:7, 12; 6:13; 1 Cor 7:18; Col 3:11; 4:11; Eph 2:11; Tit 1:10. The early conflicts regarding the relationship between believers (especially Gentile believers) and the Law naturally involved circumcision—Acts 15:1ff (cf. 16:3; 21:21); Gal 2:3ff. It was out of these disputes and debates that Paul developed his particular (and controversial) teaching regarding circumcision and the Law for believers in Christ (Jews and Gentiles alike)—Rom 2:25-29ff; 4:10-12; 1 Cor 7:19; Gal 5:2ff; 6:12-15; Phil 3:3; Col 2:11; 3:11; and also Eph 2:11. Fundamental to this teaching is the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, and the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ is a key theme of Romans, especially in this concluding section (Rom 15:7-13) to the body of the letter. Consider the message of unity inherent in the central citation of Deut 32:43 in verse 10:
“Be of good mind [i.e. be glad, rejoice], (you) nations [e&qnh, i.e. Gentiles], with his people [tou= laou= au)tou=, i.e. Israel]”
For this important theme elsewhere in Paul’s writings, see Romans 1:16-17; chapter 3; 9:24; 10:12; chapter 11; Gal 3:26-29; 1 Cor 9:20-21; 12:13; Col 3:11, and also Eph 2:11-22.
Note also the two infinitive clauses of verses 8-9, both governed by the preposition ei)$ (“into/unto”):
- to confirm [bebaiw=sai, lit. make firm/fixed] the promises of [i.e. for/to] the Fathers
- the nations to esteem [doxa/sai, i.e. honor/glorify] God
The expression “promises [i.e. messages/announcements] for/to the Fathers” refers to Israelites and Jews, while “the nations” clearly refers to Gentiles.
In this regard, one is reminded of a similar two-fold reference embedded in the ‘Song of Simeon’ (the Nunc Dimittis), Luke 2:29-32, and connected specifically with the birth of Jesus:
- “…(in) that my eyes saw your salvation” (v. 30)
- “which you prepared according to the face of [i.e. before] all the peoples” (v. 31)
Verse 32 builds upon this and makes it more specific: “salvation” under the image of a light (fw=$). As in Rom 15:8-9, here we also find phrases governed by the preposition ei)$ (“into/unto”), indicating both purpose and result:
- “(the) uncovering [a)poka/luyin] of the nations“—either from the standpoint of the nations (light shining on them in darkness) or that the light itself constitutes revelation
- “(the) the esteem/glory [do/can] of your people Israel”
On the language and imagery of these phrases, cf. Isa 49:6, 9 and 46:13
Both Rom 15:8-9 and Luke 2:32 emphasize “esteem/honor/glory” (do/ca), which also indicates the overriding purpose: “unto [ei)$] the glory of God”. From God, this ‘glory’ extends (through Christ) to all the people. The citation from Psalm 117:1 in Rom 15:11 demonstrates a subtle shift toward the idea of unity—of including Gentiles among the People of God—
The parallel moves from
nations | people [sg. lao/$] to
nations | peoples [pl. laoi/]
just as we see the plural laoi/ (“peoples”) used in Luke 2:31; sometimes “peoples” is synonymous with “nations [i.e. Gentiles]”, but here it certainly refers to Jews and Gentiles together. In the use of “peoples [laoi/]” there is implied the merging of the nations with the “people” (Israel), such as we see expressed so well in Rom 11:13-24ff and Eph 2:11-22.
Finally, the messianic context of Isaiah 11:10, cited in Rom 15:12, brings us back to the atmosphere of eschatological expectation in the Lukan Infancy narrative—Simeon, it is said, is one who was
“looking toward receiving the para/klhsi$ of Israel” (Lk 2:25)
The Greek word para/klhsi$ (parákl¢sis) literally means “calling (or being called) alongside”, usually in the context of offering help, aid, comfort, instruction, etc. Almost certainly, Isaiah 40:1-2ff is in mind, with the idea of God providing aid and comfort for his suffering People. That such an idea is connected with the concept of the restoration of Israel (by God) at the end-time (cf. Acts 1:6) is indicated both by the future/eschatological usage of the term in Jewish writings (2/4 Esdras, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and subsequently in Rabbinic literature), as well as by the parallel expression in Lk 2:38, where it is stated that Anna was
“looking toward receiving the ransom/redemption [lu/trwsi$] of Jerusalem”
The term para/klhto$ (i.e. “Paraclete”, lit. “one called alongside”, related to para/klhsi$) occurs 4 times in the Gospel of John—Jn 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7 (also 1 Jn 2:1), where it is identified specifically with the (Holy) Spirit (see esp. 14:26). It is noteworthy, in this regard, that, right after the mention of para/klhsi$ in Lk 2:25, we read:
“…and the Holy Spirit was upon him [i.e. Simeon]”
Paul, too, concludes Rom 15:7-13 with a climactic reference to the Holy Spirit (the final words of the verse). He ends with another purpose-clause governed by the preposition ei)$ (cf. above); his concluding prayer is for believers
“…to abound/overflow in the hope [i.e. of Christ/salvation], in (the) power of the Holy Spirit“
This is a prayer we can, and should, offer during the current Christmas season as well.